Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Edward, Alphonse, brief glimpse of Winry.
Setting: Late in the recovery process after the Elrics' failed human transmutation.
Summary: It was the first time Ed had thought of what others would see when they looked at him.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: Written for the prompt "body image issues" at Hurt/Comfort Bingo. I thought it would be rather different to explore Ed's feelings about his post-transmutation appearance, instead of Al's.
"Are you ready yet, Ed?" Winry's voice called out from beyond the closed door of the bedroom.
"…Just a minute. I'll be right there."
Heaving a sigh, Edward turned back to the mirror above the bureau. His left hand reached across his chest, and he clasped his palm over the rough, dark seams of scar tissue that marked the border between metal and skin.
After growing up as the neighbor and semi-adoptee of automail mechanics, Ed was thoroughly used to seeing artificial limbs—on other people. He had never so much as blinked at the prosthetics of the Rockbells' patients. Even now, he still didn't, when they belonged to someone else… but having machines where his own flesh and blood belonged was a different story.
Until today, he really hadn't given a thought to how he looked, his once-healthy young body reduced to a mess of scars and mismatched limbs. He had been too busy learning to use his automail properly. The past months were consumed with physical therapy: figuring out all over again how to walk and run, how to grasp objects and to write, all with a heavy mechanical arm and leg that felt no sensation beyond the eternal dull ache of their presence. There was nothing in his mind but the determination to make these things work, just as fully as the natural organs they replaced.
He was succeeding in that goal, more completely and quickly than anyone else had dreamed—which is what brought him to be standing before the mirror that day, gazing with a faintly sick-feeling trepidation at the contrast between the real and the false.
Ed hadn't ventured beyond the Rockbells' house and yard since the night of the transmutation, when his limbs were lost. For most of that time, recovering from surgeries or still unsteady on his automail leg, he was in no real condition to go anywhere… but that had changed. His wounds had become only healed and hardened scars, no longer in need of any special care or protection against infection. Now readjusted to walking, he did so with only the slightest trace of a limp. His body was ready for—and even needed—the test of greater exertions.
So today, for the first time since the loss of his limbs, he was going to the market with Winry and Alphonse.
He hadn't been prepared for just how that prospect was going to make him feel. Hadn't even suspected it, until he went to dress for the outing, and found himself facing his reflection.
It wasn't as if what he saw should have surprised him now. Since his ports were implanted and his automail attached, he had looked at his body all the time. In fact, he examined it minutely from day to day, watching the progress of his healing—sometimes even with approval.
But today was the first time he had thought of what others would see when they looked at him.
Of course, the villagers were just as used to seeing automail as Ed was—because the Rockbells received all too much business. In that rural, hardworking region of the country, life could be unexpectedly hazardous: there were accidents with farming equipment, or with the machines at fabric mills in nearby towns, where the local wool was spun. After the Ishbal rebellion, crippled soldiers came from even farther away seeking Pinako's skill, and some chose to settle there in the quiet countryside after their recovery. As a result of all that familiarity with the causes for amputations, the natives gave hardly a thought to the prosthetics so many of their neighbors possessed.
But the thing was… people never would know the cause for Ed's automail. Not entirely. And not knowing would make them curious, in the politely concerned but sometimes stifling way of small-town folk.
Unlike those soldiers and factory workers and farmers, whose losses were obviously related to their occupations, Edward was just a boy. There was no apparent risk in his life to trace his injuries to. Although many people did know he was a student of alchemy, they would never imagine that the scientific art he used to make dolls and flowers would do this.
Pinako had invented some sort of cover story. Ed never asked exactly what it was, but he knew she had noised it around that the Elric brothers' accident was—quite naturally—a trauma they wouldn't wish to discuss. She, at least, was confident that people would respect that. Yet even if they didn't ask, they would surely wonder, and nothing she could have told them would explain away… everything.
Inevitably, people would look at Ed curiously. They would whisper and speculate, talking about him long after he was gone from their presence. He would be…
He would be like one of the exotically malformed animals he had once seen displayed in a traveling medicine show. To this day, he could still remember the appalled and wondering murmurs that passed through the crowd—exclamations voiced by the same neighbors who would soon see his changes for the first time.
What is that thing? Could it be a chimera that was made that way with alchemy? Or is it just some "normal" kind of freak?
The poor thing, it's obviously suffering either way… It ought to be put out of its misery.
Grimacing, Ed dropped his hand from his metal shoulder. He jerked open the top bureau drawer, to withdraw a few articles of clothing and throw them onto his bed. Long pants, a long-sleeved shirt—and a pair of gloves meant for winter weather.
It was cowardice to hide his self-mutilation, but after all he had endured in silent resolve through these past months, he deserved to let himself indulge in a little cowardice now. Just for a short while; just for this first time out in public, or maybe two. That way, he could build up gradually to the idea of letting people see what he had become.
Refusing to look at his reflection, he dressed in the clothes, pulling on the gloves last of all. Only then did he turn to regard the mirror, his sense of satisfaction more hollow than he would admit to himself. His chosen garments covered him from the neck down, permitting not the slightest glimmer of steel to peek through.
He still knew what was underneath. And by now, most everyone in Resembool would know too—but at least he wouldn't feel their inquisitive gazes on his scars.
His gloved left hand reached up to tug at a lock of his hair. It fell past his shoulders in golden ripples now. Letting it grow out for a time was a strange whim on his part: perhaps a subconscious rebellion, one deliberate choice he could make in defiance of all the things in his life that had spun out of his control. For weeks he had meant to ask Winry to cut it short again, but he could never pry himself away from his reconditioning for even the few minutes it would take.
Ed was reaching for the scissors on top of the bureau when someone knocked at the bedroom door.
"Brother? You've been in there a while… Is everything okay?"
The metallic resonance of Alphonse's voice was further muffled by the wood of the door. Ed winced faintly and glanced at the bedside clock, finding more time had passed than he realized.
"Yeah, I'm fine! I'll be coming in just a second…"
Evidently Al was less than convinced. The door cracked open, and Al leaned his gargantuan armored figure halfway into the room. Seeing Ed in front of the bureau, he tilted his helmet slightly—but he said nothing.
At that moment, Ed wished more than ever that he could see the expressions of Al's true face. He wanted to read the reaction to his concealing clothes, unseasonable for the warm summer weather. He wanted to know if Al would frown at the way he was hiding, when…
A lump caught in his throat. It took all of his will to prevent the sudden heat in his eyes from upwelling into moisture.
"Come on—I said I'm fine." Without looking at Al's not-really-a-face, Ed shrugged and made a hasty shooing-away gesture. "I'll be right with you. Go on downstairs."
He could feel the perplexity and skepticism radiating through Al's steel skin. Yet in spite of that, and still without comment, Al slowly withdrew from the doorway.
The moment the door softly clicked shut, Ed's shoulders slumped, and he pressed the heels of his gloved hands over his eyes as tears finally formed there.
What am I doing?
Alphonse couldn't hide. He was simply too large to overlay his armor with any disguise that would not be just as unreasonable and impractical. What Ed had done to his brother left Al no choice but to be seen exactly as he was—and there was no really sensible cover story for why, or even how, a young boy would adopt the guise of a massive steel shell. No matter what Pinako or anyone else said to explain it away, it was Al's appearance that would attract the most curiosity… and fear.
And unlike Ed, Al had faced those reactions already—long since. He had been going on errands with Winry for months, before Ed's automail limbs were even attached.
He never spoke of the way people must have treated him at first. He was always upbeat about getting out, seeing what was new in the village, visiting with neighbors… even in the beginning, when Ed knew the cheer was forced. When he knew everyone would have stopped and stared at their first sight of Al, in spite of any forewarning.
Had some shied away from him altogether? Had children screamed or run from him?
Whatever might have happened then, it was better for Al now, after being seen regularly in public. When he came back from shopping trips, his good spirits were much more genuine. Either people had become used to his appearance… or he had become used to the behaviors of anyone who may still have rejected him.
But through the adjustment, he had stubbornly borne the pain of it alone—and that was just one more way Ed had failed him unforgivably.
Stifling a snarl in his throat, Ed peeled off the gloves and covering clothes as if they burned his skin. He attacked the bureau drawer once more. Finding what he wanted, he redressed… and then, pausing thoughtfully, he fingered his blond locks again.
When Edward appeared downstairs a few minutes later, Winry did a startled double-take; but it was Alphonse who stared. Ed couldn't see his brother's expression, but he felt it, and he realized Al knew the significance of what he was seeing.
The all-concealing garments were gone. Long pants were replaced with shorts that barely reached Ed's knees, plainly revealing the steel of his left leg. A tank top similarly exposed his automail arm, showing even a glimpse of the scars where metal was bolted to his chest. Still untouched by scissors, his hair was twisted into a tight golden braid that fell between his shoulder blades.
"…Brother?" Al queried, his voice faint and tremulous.
Ed grinned up at him crookedly, a trace of mischief veiling the deeper emotions in his eyes. "What? It's going to be hot outside today."
For all that, he knew he couldn't fool Al—and he wasn't really trying.
The faint noise that echoed in Al's emptiness was the tiny catch of a nonexistent breath. He reached out, laying his gauntlet on the bare flesh of Ed's left shoulder. In turn, Ed gently pressed his own steel fingers against the leather ones; and nothing more needed to be said.
Winry moved abruptly toward the stairs, raising a hand to her face as she murmured thickly that she had forgotten something in her room.
Ed realized full well that this choice wasn't going to be so easy, once they stepped out through the Rockbells' front door. The anxiety was still there. In his heart, he still cringed at the thought of the glances and whispers that awaited him… but he knew that if he tried to hide from them, he couldn't truly stand beside his brother.
Let them stare all they want. This time, let them stare at me instead of Al.
© 2013 Jordanna Morgan